What first impressed me about Edinburgh are its bridges — they don’t simply cross over rivers or streams; they cross over entire parts of the city. The road called North Bridge, for example, runs above the train station, connecting pedestrians to what may seem like ground-floor levels of aged stone buildings. These bridges have the effect of making parts of the city look like complex, layered warrens of human creation and activity.
In this light, Edinburgh is an excellent setting for the Festival Fringe: several frenetic weeks of theatre and live performances, big and small, free or otherwise. Intended as an addendum to the International Arts Festival giving amateurs and budding artists the chance to perform to the public, the Fringe has far outgrown its parent event. Yet those who are tempted to think of the Fringe as fertile ground where artistry and creativity run wild would do well to temper the notion by considering a most exciting topic: the economics of performing at the Fringe.
The economics of a human activity is an aspect of its culture, even if it is considered ‘inferior’ to the rarefied level of art. If one were to take an anthropological snapshot of the Fringe, one would find an uneven social terrain. What is interesting, however, is how and why the terrain is stratified—which is where economics come in.
Like in any market, the Fringe is divided into winners and losers. There are a limited number of attendees (including other performers) and all the myriad shows in the festival are competing for their free time and money. There are popular—even, believe it or not, sold-out—shows and there are shows with no audience. The latter seem to be common enough, as a smart phone application called Theatre Ninjas exists that allows performers to release free tickets at the eleventh hour in a bid to get more audience. Suffice to say that few shows can be expected do that unless sufficiently desperate, since it would naturally alienate paying audience members.
As one might expect, shows that do well at the box office are those that can sell themselves to a mass audience. But what is interesting is why some shows don’t do well: they are either catering to less popular niches or are promoted badly; either way, it’s a problem of marketing.
Within the festival quality varies wildly and people may have a hard time distinguishing the good shows from the bad. Yet the primary method of promoting shows in the Fringe is through the doubtful way of flyering—handing out flyers on a stretch of streets called the Royal Mile. The hubbub on the Mile is a riot for those who are there to soak up the carnivalesque atmosphere, but while one is enjoying the busking and singing that erupt everywhere on the Mile, it’s very difficult not to bump into numerous people handing out flyers. Each passerby can accumulate dozens of them, and though interested show-goers may well take a look at each and every one it remains difficult to tell the good from the bad. Thus, flyering alone isn’t enough to win a sizeable audience. Yet, cheap gimmicks aside, there is little that some shows can do — such tricks may get people to pick up flyers, but whether they would actually watch the shows is a different question.
The winners are those shows with a ‘wow’ factor that can be communicated through brief previews on the Mile—high impact, polished performances that draw crowds of onlookers. No amount of flyering can equal the selling power that these snippets have. Unfortunately, not all shows can put those up; dramas tend to get the short end of the stick in this regard and are therefore likely to pull smaller audiences and struggle to make ends meet. Venues in the Fringe are, after all, not cheap, and there are other costs to cover such as board, transportation costs and living costs. Thus, unpopular shows also tend to be very unprofitable.
In light of these observations, it’s no surprise that the winners in the Fringe are all-time favourites such as musicals or musically-oriented shows. These shows are better able to attract large audiences through music and performances on the Mile. In this sense, the Fringe is really quite ‘mainstream’. Without the luxury of bottomless pockets, those planning to bring their shows to the festival would do well to think carefully about their marketing blitz, about whether their shows can demonstrate that crucial ‘wow’ factor. Or, alternatively, they can look for sponsors or participate in the Free Fringe, the fringe of the Fringe, which provides artists with free but smaller and more Spartan venues — spaces that may be ill-suited for a whole ensemble of performers.
As far as the main Fringe event is concerned, however, those artists looking to parachute their novel ideas into the public gaze should be wary of the potential difficulties in selling their shows; lest the experience ends in tragedy where an arts festival that seemed open to everything, that almost anyone can participate in with modest enough capital, turns out to be a Fringe too far.